President Trump caused some head scratching when he told a plane full of journalists en route to France that “what I’d like to do is a comprehensive immigration plan.” But as the Russia investigations drag on, the prospects for health care reform are on hold, and tax reform continues to be a work in progress, this seemingly far-fetched plan may in fact be the most likely opportunity for the president to land a signature legislative victory during his first year in office.
It’s not the conventional bet, but this is not a conventional time nor a conventional president – and, this is not the first time we’ve seen him lay some groundwork for such a pursuit.
The travel ban and aggressive enforcement have been the face of the administration’s immigration policy thus far, but the facts on the ground have changed of late. The president just announced the number of illegal border crossings has dropped by 75 percent since his inauguration. This may create the opportunity to do more.
Getting to yes on immigration would be a legacy-making move for President Trump – his Nixon-goes-to-China moment.
Even before his comments on Air Force One, President Trump had signaled a desire and willingness to go beyond enforcement to fix the broken visa system and address the fact that 11 million people live here without legal status.
A couple weeks ago he told Apple CEO Tim Cook and a gathering of tech leaders that he would put “more heart”into the immigration debate and pledged to work on comprehensive immigration reform, a sentiment he had expressed a couple months earlier to a room full of broadcast journalists.
These comments may be far from setting administration policy – indeed, Secretary of Homeland Security Kelly just indicated he may not defend Obama-era protection for DREAMers and Politico is reporting that some in the Trump Administration are advocating for cutting legal immigration in half – but they do make clear that a broad immigration overhaul is on the president’s mind and he is open to taking on the issue that has stymied every president since Reagan.
I’ll be the first to acknowledge reasonable skepticism, but working on this issue from a nonpartisan vantage point, I believe there are three compelling reasons to believe immigration reform is and should be at the top of the agenda:
First, this is how President Trump can fulfill his promises on immigration enforcement. On its own, a bill to build a wall is dead on arrival in the Senate. However, in 2013, a comprehensive bill passed the Senate with votes from 54 Democrats and 14 Republicans. And it passed because instead of focusing solely on enforcement, it overhauled our outdated legal immigration system.
The bill didn’t skimp on the border, either. It included $46 billion for security and enforcement, double what President Trump is requesting for his wall now. It mandated hundreds of miles of walls and fences, doubled the number of border patrol agents, and funded aircraft, watchtowers, ground sensors, and mobile surveillance to further monitor the border, while also cracking down on employers who hired undocumented immigrants.
Second, and in contrast to many of the administration’s other legislative priorities, overhauling the immigration system already enjoys major bipartisan support in this Congress. Since the 2013 bill, new Republican supporters like Senator Thom Tillis have joined longtime Republican stalwarts like Senators Flake and Hatch in calling for broad immigration reform.
In this Congress, Republicans in both chambers have already introduced four distinct bills that would provide undocumented immigrants with legal status. (One such bill in the House has attracted more than 200 co-sponsors, including 99 Republicans.)
Finally, despite all the political rhetoric, immigration is actually one of the least controversial policy issues out there. Americans don’t want open borders and amnesty, but they also don’t want to deport 11 million people, the vast majority of whom are not criminals, are working, and are active members of their communities.
Multiple polls show that Americans of all political persuasions, including a clear majority of Trump voters, overwhelmingly support immigration reform that would secure the border, grant legal status to non-criminal undocumented immigrants, and bring the visa system into the 21st century by increasing protections for American workers while also allowing companies to recruit the top talent and necessary workers to fill gaps in the American workforce.
Importantly, popular support for these policies is only growing – but to enact them, we’ll need a dealmaker who can succeed where so many others have failed.
To get a deal, President Trump needs to sweeten the pot by adding broadly popular reforms that would grow the American economy. According to estimates from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, such comprehensive reform would cut the deficit by $900 billion over 20 years because of tax revenues from the millions of people who would be able to formally enter the workforce, and would actually result in a 0.5 percent wage increase for all American workers. It would go a long way toward supporting the administration’s economic growth and job creation goals – the president’s own chair of the Council of Economic Advisers has written extensively on the large gains immigration reform can bring – while also creating the budget room for other major priorities.
Of course, the loudest voices might insist on an enforcement-only approach, and decry anything they suspect to be “amnesty.” But balanced against such a challenge will be the enormous political, historical, and economic upside of passing comprehensive immigration reform. Getting to yes on immigration would be a legacy-making move for President Trump – his Nixon-goes-to-China moment, one that would put his deal-making skills on a level with the last president to sign immigration reform, Ronald Reagan.
After decades of gridlock on immigration, political necessity and popular demand seem to have aligned. Now it’s in the power of the Dealmaker in Chief to make immigration reform a reality.
Jeremy Robbins is the executive director of New American Economy.